Chiawa Camp

Chiawa Camp: Our full report

Rooms
8 tents, 1 suite
Traveller's rating
Excellent (97%) From 57 reviews
Children
Best for 12+
Open
Mid-April to Mid-November

Chiawa Camp is situated on the banks of the Zambezi River, beneath a grove of mahogany trees in the heart of Zambia's game-rich Lower Zambezi National Park. Opened by the Cumings family in 1989, Chiawa was the first camp in the park and is still run by a member of the family, Grant Cumings, who is very hands on. Over the years, the camp has evolved in size and comfort to a high degree of understated luxury.

As with most camps in the Lower Zambezi, Chiawa is open only during the drier months, between about mid-April and mid-November. The camp has eight Meru-style tents and one safari suite, all beautifully furnished in wood and neutral colours, and all with en-suite bathrooms. Linked to the main areas by sandy pathways, they all have broadly similar facilities but some differ in terms of their layout or outlook.

  • Six of Chiawa's tents (numbers 1–6) overlook the main Zambezi River and are closest to the main area. These tents are raised on wooden platforms, large and sturdy, and are entered by a proper door to the back or side. The front opens out onto a private veranda with comfortable lounge chairs and a coffee table. Inside, each tent is large and open plan, incorporating a bedroom, bathroom and changing area.
    As well as twin beds, or a double, beneath a large walk-in mosquito net, you'll find a wooden writing desk, ceiling and free-standing fans, and two armchairs. Located behind the bed are a changing area and the bathroom, with twin sinks set into a wooden counter, a free-standing bath, flush loo and rain shower. A private outdoor shower completes the picture.

  • The remaining two tents (7 and 8) have similar facilities to the rest, but these tents are a little bigger and each has a bathroom which is set off to the side of the open-plan bedroom and lounge area, rather than behind it. Because they catch the afternoon sun, these also have thatched roofs for extra shade. Tent seven overlooks both the Zambezi and the Chowe rivers, whilst eight overlooks the often-dry Chowe River.

  • Previously tent nine, Chiawa’s new safari suite, beside the Chowe River, is different again. Newly opened for the 2017 season, its understated but elegant design fits its move to a new location, up on top of a hill, which gives it much better views and a feeling of exclusivity.

  • The suite - often called the honeymoon suite, though it works just as well for families - has a great location towards the far end of the camp, affording it more privacy than the other tents.
    With a thatched roof, canvas walls and folding wooden doors stretching the width of the suite, it’s a spacious, luxurious and comfortable retreat.
    Decorated throughout in light cream, jade and silver colours, which complement the light wood furnishing, the overall effect is one of understated luxury.
    A large lounge area has sofas, coffee table and a small reference library as well as a mini-bar and tea/coffee station. This space can be converted into a bedroom with 2 daybeds for families, and there’s also a guest cloakroom to the back. In the middle of the suite you’ll find the open plan bathroom, with a freestanding bath (surrounded by candles), twin sinks and separate shower & toilet cubicles. Complimentary toiletries, dressing gowns and slippers can be found on the shelves. To the far end of the suite is the bedroom, dominated by a huge four-poster bed within a walk-in mosquito net. Bedside tables have stylish reading lamps, and behind the bed are luggage shelves and storage units, holding a torch, emergency radio, mosquito repellant and a small safe.
    A large wooden deck to the front again stretches the width of the suite, overlooking the river, with comfy daybeds and chairs, plus sun loungers alongside a private plunge pool. Steps lead down to a firepit and another seating area.

There are plans to remodel some of the tents, keeping their current locations but realigning them to optimise their views of the large amount of wildlife that makes its way past the tents on the way to the river.

The main area at Chiawa is a double-storey construction with uninterrupted views across the Zambezi River. Built mostly of dark wood, reeds and thatch, it exudes a pleasantly rustic air of outdoor living. Downstairs you'll find the bar, and two separate lounge areas with wooden chairs and benches and cane furniture with soft cushions in neutral tones and earthy reds. There's also a small library of books and magazines and a natural-history display table. Upstairs is a third comfortable seating area and viewing deck with a telescope.

The food at Chiawa is usually excellent and most meals are taken in the separate dining area, which is open to the front and overlooks the river. Dinner is often by candlelight under the stars, but on our most recent visit we were treated to dinner away from camp in a section of dry riverbed, illuminated by candles and storm lanterns.

Lunch is a movable feast, perhaps under the shade of the trees or on Chiawa's motorised pontoon, and breakfast is set up around the campfire. In the dining room you'll also find a 'help yourself' tea and coffee table, which is always stocked with freshly baked biscuits.

For those hot days on the Zambezi, Chiawa Camp has a large swimming pool, with a shaded area and sun loungers. You might also be tempted by the

The camp also has a small shop, stocked with good quality, locally-made curios.

With a team of excellent and enthusiastic guides, Chiawa offers a full range of flexible activities, which include game drives (day and night) in open 4WDs, walking safaris, canoeing and boat trips. Catch-and-release fishing on fly and conventional tackle (using artificial bait) with expert guides and custom-built pontoon boats is also an option.

The guides are professional and knowledgeable, and over numerous visits since our first in 1995, we've come to appreciate their willingness to go out of their way to try to fulfill each guest's interests. Having said that, if you're serious about fishing then consider booking a private boat, especially during September and October when fishing here is at its best and demand for this activity can be high. Expect a cost of around US$175 per boat for half a day (about four hours) or US$350 for a full day. The number of boats is limited to two, so advance booking is advisable.

In the corner of the camp Chiawa has an elevated viewing platform, which overlooks the confluence of the dry riverbed of the Chowe River (often referred to as the Chiawa River) and the Zambezi River, which is ideal for watching animals come down for their midday drink. There are also two hides, one just outside the entrance of the camp next to the river, and one sunk into the ground next to a waterhole, allowing a unique 'eye-level' view of buffalo, warthogs and other thirsty animals.

Over numerous visits, including most recently in June 2017, the game viewing in the Chiawa area has been superb. It's not unusual for camps downriver to head west to watch wildlife in the area, or for vehicles from the GMA just outside the park boundaries to head east. On our last visit we were able to spot a pride of lions, four leopards, , porcupines and zebra all in one evening drive. If you're lucky you might also see wild dog, which we were lucky enough to see from Chiawa’s sister camp, Old Mondoro, on our last trip. Don't expect giraffe or wildebeest though, as they're not found in this area. Up until early 2017, we’d have also said that cheetah weren’t to be found in the bush surrounding Chiawa, but a lone male has been spotted several times since.

For the keen birdwatcher, the Lower Zambezi is great for both water and land birds. Boating, canoeing and walking safaris give a different perspective and if you're very quiet and cautious, may sometimes allow you to get closer to the birds without disturbing them. Great sightings have included the giant eagle owl, spurwinged geese, kingfishers and an abundance of Goliath herons. From around September to November, the carmine bee-eaters are quite a spectacle.

Chiawa's team is one of the founder members of Conservation Lower Zambezi, a non-governmental organisation which aims to reduce poaching and misuse of resources in Zambia's Lower Zambezi. Chiawa remains particularly active in its support of CLZ, and Expert Africa is pleased to have been able to contribute support to this worthy charity.

Our view

In many ways, we think Chiawa is one of the best, and best-run, camps in Africa. The service and food are top-notch, with a team who tend to go out of their way to make everyone feel comfortable – and left us feeling that nothing was too much trouble. The camp manages to be luxurious, while still feeling homely and welcoming, a balance that can be difficult to get right. A good complement of excellent guides and a flexible attitude towards activities means that guests will usually get to do what they want, more or less when they want. We love it.

Geographics

Location: Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia

Ideal length of stay: We recommend a minimum of three nights at Chiawa, although many visitors stay for longer to take advantage of the variety of activities on offer. Chiawa also combines well with its sister camp, Old Mondoro.

Directions: Following a flight of about 35 minutes from Lusaka to Royal airstrip, the transfer to camp is around 20 minutes by 4WD, and a further 20 minutes by boat.

Accessible by: Fly-and-Transfer

Key personnel

Owner: Owned and run by Grant Cumings and his family.

Food & drink

Usual board basis: Full Board

Food quality: Expert Africa team members have visited Chiawa Camp many times, first in 1995! On our most recent visit in June 2017, as on previous stays, the food was typically very good and the portions very generous.

You'll be woken just before sunrise with a 'knock knock', when tea or coffee will be brought to the door of your tent. Guests meet around the campfire for a light breakfast, which usually consists of toast, muffins, pancakes or pastries, cereal, yoghurt and porridge, along with tea, coffee and fresh juices..

Lunch is served at around 11.00am or 11.30am, once you've had some time to freshen up after your morning activity. Lunch may be enjoyed in various places around the camp in the cool shade of trees, but most recently we were treated to one of Chiawa's special lunches on their motorised pontoon. We had sesame chicken with roasted vegetables, Thai noodles, a selection of salads and homemade bread. The food was delicious, and enjoyed while watching numerous elephants, as well as hippo and crocodile along the riverbank. The lunch that we had at the lodge was a very tasty beef fillet with aubergine and pepper brochettes, with a selection of salads, although it is also possible to also order eggs, sausages and bacon. A light lychee sorbet finished the meal.

Afternoon tea is served at about 3.30pm, before the afternoon activity, and usually involves both a freshly baked cake or cookies and a savoury dish – we enjoyed flatbreads and hummus, then a delicious carrot cake with amarula icing.

Dinner is usually a four course meal served under the stars in the main area, and we were served a feta and pepper tartlet, butternut squash soup, then grilled tilapia with jasmine rice and steamed vegetables. After expressing our delight at the amarula in the afternoon snack, we were treated to amarula chocolate mousse for dessert.

Dining style: Group Meals

Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining

Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included

Drinks included: Bottled water, soft drinks, local beers and spirits, and a selection of South African red and white wines are included. Champagne and cellar wines are excluded.

Further dining info: No

Special interests

Solo Travel: Chiawa is never cheap, but it has no single supplement, making it a more affordable option for solo travel in Zambia. A combination of communal meals and incredibly friendly staff also means solo travellers shouldn’t lack for company.

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Honeymoons: Chiawa's safari suite is perfect for a Zambia honeymoon. Couples can dine privately in their room, or dine romantically on the camps motorised pontoon. A bathtub big enough for two and shared showers under the stars add to the romance.

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Birdwatching: Chiawa is a particularly good camp for bird-watching in Zambia: it's great for water and land birds and has expert guides.. Boating, walks and a game hide give different perspectives. Favourites here include an osprey, eagle owls, kingfishers and carmine bee-eaters.

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Photography holidays: Chiawa's open-topped 4WD vehicles are ideal for photography, whilst boating, canoeing and two hides (overlooking waterholes) give different perspectives on the wildlife. Then there are the camp’s excellent guides, plus the stunning backdrop scenery of the escarpment behind camp.

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Wildlife safaris: The Lower Zambezi is one of the best parks for wildlife safaris in Zambia; Chiawa is one of very few camps inside the park itself and has top-notch guides. Red-filtered spotlights further improve night drives, creating less disruption to the wildlife.

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Luxury: With uninterrupted views across the Zambezi River, Chiawa’s classic tents are furnished in mahogany. Attention to detail and quality abound: this is a tightly-run ship! Expect food that would grace a top restaurant, and an impressive range of activities delivered by an attentive team.

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Children

Attitude towards children: Chiawa welcomes mature and responsible children over the age of eight years. However, the minimum age for walking and canoeing is 12.

Property’s age restrictions: The minimum age of children visiting is 8 years.

Equipment: The safari suite works well for a family, with two day beds that can be set up in the lounge area. Alternatively, tents 1 and 2 are the closest together, and would work for a family with older children only - but you'd still need an adult in each tent as nobody is allowed to walk around alone after dark.

Notes: Chiawa Camp is unfenced and dangerous wildlife often wanders through. The riverbank is open, and steep in parts, and the swimming pool is unfenced. Children need to be closely supervised by their parents at all times.

Infrastructure

Power supply: Generator

Power supply notes: There are plug points in the tents for charging batteries, iPads, phones etc. A separate plug socket allows for limited use of a (provided) hairdryer.

Communications: There is no direct phone line – although the camp does have satellite communications for emergencies. Cellphone reception is very intermittent and not reliable. WiFi is available, but is very slow and is restricted to guest tents; it does not allow for transmission of images or applications such as Skype or Facetime.

TV & radio: No

Water supply: Other

Water supply notes: Water is pumped from the Zambezi River and is filtered. Showers and bathtubs are plumbed in, with hot and cold running water. There are flushing toilets. There are plans for a borehole to be drilled, to provide fresh water for the camp.

Health & safety

Malarial protection recommended: Yes

Medical care: The camp managers and guides are trained in first-aid. The closest doctor is in the village, 1½ hours away by boat. In case of medical emergency, guests would be evacuated to Lusaka and then potentially to Johannesburg.

Dangerous animals: High Risk

Security measures: Chiawa is an unfenced camp, on the edge of the Zambezi River. Wildlife, including elephant, hippo and leopard are known to roam through the camp on a regular basis. Guests are escorted to their tents after dark and a safety radio is provided in each tent.

Fire safety: There are fire buckets with water at all the tents and behind all the thatched buildings. There's also a fire blanket and fire extinguishers in the kitchen.

Extras

Disabled access: On Request

Laundry facilities: A full laundry service is included, except for ladies’ underwear, for cultural reasons. Washing powder is provided in each bathroom for this purpose, as is a small washing line.

Money: There is a safe in each tent. The camp does not offer any currency-exchange facilities.

Accepted payment on location: Any extras such as purchases from the shop or special fishing trips, need to be settled in cash, preferably in Zambian kwacha. However, small amounts of US dollars are usually acceptable, and notes dated 2006 or later are preferred.

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